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On Reenactment: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools

 | 
Cristina Baldacci
, 
Susanne Franco

Solos

The Matter of Reenactment: A Materialist Inquiry into Cambodia’s Contemporary Monumental Practices

Stéphanie Benzaquen-Gautier

Texte intégral

Part of the research for this paper was made possible through the COTCA Project, and therefore received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program (grant no. 682081).

  • 1 May Titthara, “Officials reminisce over Hun Sen’s win-win policy”, Khmer Times, no. 28 (December 2 (...)

Before June 20, 1977, I was just a soldier who received orders from superiors. But from then until now, I have been a leader that has ensured Cambodia’s national process forever without taking breaks.1

1This statement by Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen is featured at the Win-Win Monument, a vast memorial complex built on the outskirts of Phnom Penh and inaugurated in December 2018 for the twentieth anniversary of the final dismantling of the Khmer Rouge movement (fig. 1). The date 20 June 1977 refers to Hun Sen’s defection from the Khmer Rouge (he was then a regimental commander) to Vietnam. Back in Cambodia with the Vietnamese forces that entered the country in December 1978 to overthrow the Khmer Rouge, Hun Sen quickly rose to prominence in the new political and state apparatus, first as Foreign Minister, and then since 1985 as Prime Minister.

2The Win-Win Monument is a 33 metre high triangular monolith (lingam, a symbol of generative power, would certainly be a more appropriate term) posed on a pentagonal basis adorned with a 117 metre long wall of bas-reliefs which recount half a century of Cambodia’s history through Hun Sen’s personal story. It includes a museum and a small park that displays military vehicles and planes from the period of the conflict between the Cambodian government and the Khmer Rouge. The whole structure commemorates Hun Sen’s struggles and victories, and Cambodia’s parallel struggles and victories.

Fig. 1. View of the monolith of the Win-Win Monument

Fig. 1. View of the monolith of the Win-Win Monument

©Stéphanie Benzaquen-Gautier (2020)

  • 2 Karen Barad, “Posthumanist Performativity: Towards an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter” (...)

3The transformative dimension of Hun Sen’s experience simultaneously encapsulates and shapes the experience of Cambodia. The country has long been subjected to external forces (the French colonial power, the United States during the 1970-1975 civil war, and the China-leaning Khmer Rouge “superiors”), but has now broken its shackles, and fought its way to independence and sovereignty. This chapter takes this entwined celebration of leadership and nation-building as a starting point for exploring the relationship between materiality, agency, and reenactment in Cambodia. More specifically, it considers the way this relationship unfolds in the context of monumentality and memorialisation. I build on Karen Barad’s notion of “posthuman performativity” to unpack this relationship. I investigate the connection between two artefacts, the Win-Win Monument and a documentary movie about Hun Sen, through the idea of “materialist-discursive practices” and their “mutual entailment”.2

  • 3 Ibid., 822-829.

4Drawing on Barad’s “iterative enactment”, I suggest that reenactment, at least in the specific context of Cambodia’s “official” history, might be decoupled from its epistemological function and open the way for another modality of knowing the past, a “knowing-in-being” that materialises through a range of practices.3 Studies of Cambodia’s monuments often focus on the Angkor Wat temple complex, and to date, contemporary forms are still under-explored. A materialist inquiry into one of the most recent monuments to be erected might help understand how the country, engaged in a new phase of development (well-supported by China), weaves anew traditions and ruptures.

Historical Background

  • 4 Justus M. van der Kroef, “Cambodia: From ‘Democratic Kampuchea’ to ‘People’s Republic’”, Asian Sur (...)

5The Democratic Kampuchea regime collapsed in January 1979. The Khmer Rouge (officially the Communist Party of Kampuchea) had seized power in April 1975 after a five-year civil war against the Khmer Republic of Marshal Lon Nol. As a result of their short and extremely violent reign, more than 1.7 million Cambodians lost their lives through forced labour, killings, starvation, exhaustion, and disease. The tense relationship between Democratic Kampuchea and former ally Vietnam over territorial and ideological issues escalated into full-scale war throughout 1978, leading to Hanoi’s military intervention in December and the fall of the Pol Pot regime a few weeks later. The Vietnamese forces brought with them the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation (FUNSK), a movement founded in December 1978 with Cambodian veteran communists from Hanoi and defectors from the Khmer Rouge.4 The FUNSK was to become the nucleus of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, the socialist regime established shortly after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge. The latter went back to the jungle, from where they launched attacks against the new Cambodian government. The ousted movement received the support of China and the United States, both eager to counter the Soviet advance through Vietnam in Southeast Asia.

  • 5 Norodom Sihanouk formed the FUNCINPEC (French acronym for National United Front for an Independent (...)

6In the 1980s, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea – renamed the State of Cambodia in 1989 after Vietnam’s withdrawal from the country – fought against several other resistance factions inside Cambodia and at the Thai border. Besides the Khmer Rouge, the main opponents were the FUNCINPEC, formed by former head of state Prince Norodom Sihanouk, and the KPNLF, formed by anti-communist politician Son Sann.5 The negotiations initiated by the French government between the three factions and Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) led to the Paris Peace Agreements in 1991. All parties agreed to establish the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) and to the holding of free and fair elections in 1993.

  • 6 It was a “win-win” because it was “winning without bloodshed and with no losers”. Nem Sowath, Civi (...)

7However, the Khmer Rouge pulled out of the agreement before the elections and resumed the fight against the Cambodian authorities. The conflict continued throughout the 1990s amid an increasingly volatile political environment. Following the elections, Cambodia had become a constitutional monarchy with a multiparty system, but Hun Sen contested the results of the votes. He obtained from restored King Sihanouk the sharing of all power positions with the winning party, the FUNCINPEC led by Sihanouk’s son, Prince Ranariddh. It was in this context that the “win-win” policy unfolded.6

  • 7 These are the three points: ensure survival, protect assets, and maintain position.
  • 8 The first important defection was Ieng Sary’s (former Minister of Foreign Affairs in Democratic Ka (...)

8In his competition with Ranarriddh to attract Khmer Rouge commanders with their seasoned troops and military equipment, Hun Sen devised a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, he promised the defectors that they would keep their property and their military ranks once they transferred to the Cambodian Royal Armed Forces, and that he would protect their safety.7 On the other hand, he outlawed membership of the Khmer Rouge and declared the movement a criminal organisation. Playing masterly with the movement’s internal struggles, Hun Sen applied what he called the “DIFID strategy” (Divide, Isolate, Finish, Integrate, and Develop) with excellent results.8 Once he got rid of Ranariddh, in July 1997, in a coup that gave him full power, he managed to do away with the last resisting Khmer Rouge factions. The movement was declared “defunct” in December 1998. That same year, Hun Sen and the CPP gained majority control in the elections. They have won every election since then. From the mid-2010s onwards, the Prime Minister has intensified the dismantling of opposition parties, and Cambodia’s fragile democracy is currently taking a turn towards autocracy.

Defection: Iterations and Histories That Do (not) Repeat Themselves

  • 9 The communal elections in June 2017 had given the CNRP control over a third of all communes. The C (...)
  • 10 “Cambodia’s Hegemonic Party System: How and Why the CPP Became Dominant?”, Asian Journal of Compar (...)
  • 11 That was indeed the message of Hun Sen to CNRP members: “If you want to save your jobs … change yo (...)

9The Win-Win Monument, thus, commemorates a political strategy that brought “unification” and “harmonisation” to Cambodia, as claimed by some of the panels displayed there. Narratively speaking, it creates resonances between past and present. The old stories of defection are woven into the specific political context of the late 2010s: the clampdown of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).9 According to political scientist Sorpong Peou, defection is a “pattern of power consolidation” in the CPP.10 This is exactly what the Win-Win Monument aims to materialise. Through bas-reliefs and panels, the memorial redefines, and even glorifies defection as a responsible and pragmatic political attitude.11 It is construed as a selfless act of bravery and leadership, a foundational act of nation-building.

  • 12 Nachemson, “As PM recycles policy”.

10The CPP does not innovate but recycles a familiar trope in Khmer politics.12 If this redefinition works, it is because defection as a means of co-opting enemies has a long-standing history in Cambodia. It includes the rallying of Khmer Rouge soldiers to Lon Nol’s Republic during the civil war in ceremonies widely advertised in newsreels and newspapers, and the People’s Republic of Kampuchea’s blanket amnesty of mid- and low-ranks Khmer Rouge in the early 1980s to recruit reliable (read: ideologically compatible) military and administrative staff.

11These echoes from one historical period to another find their counterpart in the visual iterations of the Win-Win Monument itself. Two life-size sculptures situated on the plaza that leads to the triangular monolith embody the transformative dimension of defection, from enemy to friend, from outsider to member of the Cambodian community.

Fig. 2. Sculpture “Isolation” representing a Khmer Rouge soldier before surrendering to the Cambodian government

Fig. 2. Sculpture “Isolation” representing a Khmer Rouge soldier before surrendering to the Cambodian government

©Stéphanie Benzaquen-Gautier (2020)

12The first statue represents a Khmer Rouge soldier who has not defected yet (fig. 2). He sits on the ground, holds his knees, and looks downwards. His rifle lies at his side and his cap at his feet. The sculpture, called “Isolation”, describes “the spirit of Khmer Rouge forces before integration process [sic]”, the feelings of “despair”, “loss of purpose”, and “sadness” (panel) the troops had at the time. In contrast, the second statue, entitled “Integration”, represents a former Khmer Rouge soldier standing and donning the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces uniform. We can see the man’s “joy and satisfaction” in joining the governmental side (panel). The change of uniforms, a solid symbolic gesture, features in several reliefs, which replicate the photographs of the reintegration ceremonies in 1999 at Anlong Veng, the last Khmer Rouge bastion to fall.

13The two statues – possibly of the same man before and after defection – point to the regenerative aspect of defection, as the soldier’s downcast individual body finally stands proud and erect once it has been reintegrated into the national body politic.

  • 13 George Wright, “Hun Sen ‘win win’ legacy debated on Khmer Rouge fall anniversary”, AlJazeera (28 D (...)
  • 14 Niem Chheng, “Win Win Monument: PM’s ‘treason’ or symbol of unity?”, The Phnom Penh Post, 3 (Janua (...)

14Unsurprisingly, there are dissenting views on the monument and what it symbolises. These views were expressed at the time of the inauguration. While journalist Sebastian Strangio, for example, saw the win-win policy as an achievement (although one used as a “totalising political claim” for legitimacy), political analyst Lao Mong Hay argued that it was a “molehill turned into a mountain.13 Political opponents, such as the CNRP’s acting president-in-exile Sam Rainsy, claimed that Hun Sen’s departure to Vietnam in 1977 had been an act of treason, not of the Khmer Rouge, of course, but of the country, which he handed over to Hanoi. Not long after the inauguration, Facebook users dubbed the monument the “Yuon Win Monument” (Yuon means Vietnam). Some pointed out the architectural and iconographic similarities between the Win-Win Monument and the Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument built in 1979-1980 in Phnom Penh.14

15The controversy over the Win-Win memorial complex and how it is to be interpreted not only played out against the old debate on Vietnam’s intervention as “liberation” or “invasion”. It also resonated with the current and ongoing debate on Chinese presence in Cambodia (through Belt and Road Initiative investments), the Cambodian political elites selling the country out of personal financial interests, and the loss of national sovereignty and identity to China. In this troubled context, the reach of the Win-Win Monument would not be broad enough to impose the official view on as many people as possible. Villagers living in northern and western Cambodia’s countryside hardly come to visit the monument. Therefore, the government had to resort to other channels to carry out its redemptive narrative of defection and associated meanings.

  • 15 There are two versions of the movie, one in Khmer and one in English. See Khuon Narim “State produ (...)
  • 16 With his companions Nuch Thorng, Nhek Huon, Sou Kimsreang, and Va Por Ean.

16One of these was the documentary movie Marching Towards National Salvation (2017), produced by the Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction Unit, and broadcast on state and national television networks and social media (Facebook) in January 2018.15 Although the film is obviously a completely different material-discursive apparatus than the Win-Win Monument, it also uses an iterative structure. It tells the story of Hun Sen’s march to Vietnam and his return to liberate Cambodia.16 The movie combines interviews with the protagonists (including the Prime Minister), archive footage, drawings, animations, and reenactments.

Fig. 3. Bas-relief showing Hun Sen reflecting about the risks for himself, his compan-ions and his family if he defects to Vietnam

Fig. 3. Bas-relief showing Hun Sen reflecting about the risks for himself, his compan-ions and his family if he defects to Vietnam

©Stéphanie Benzaquen-Gautier (2020)

17The reenacted scenes are generally accompanied by a piece of suspenseful music and a voice-over comment that makes them even more emotive. They show Hun Sen marching through the jungle towards Vietnam, leaving his weapons before crossing the border, being offered a meal of rice (his first in one year) by farmers, being treated for malaria at a top hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, talking with doctors and nurses, speaking and shaking hands with Vietnamese officers.

  • 17 The movie aired on Vietnamese National Defence Channel, Ho Chi Minh City’s television HTV, and Vie (...)

18Although the movie emphasises the positive role of Vietnam, praised for its kindness and humanity and presented as a model for Cambodia,17 it is not its main objective.

  • 18 Forum Future think tank director Ou Virak, quoted in George Wright “Cambodian Strongman Displays I (...)
  • 19 Wright, “Cambodia Strongman”.

19Marching Towards National Salvation seeks to humanise the Prime Minister. The idea of the “benevolent strongman” the movie promotes is clearly modelled after Sihanouk, a leader prone to emotional outbursts and impassioned tirades.18 During the interview, Hun Sen “regularly dabs his face with a handkerchief to dry his tears when recalling the death of his child during the Khmer Rouge days, missing his wife, and looking back at his homeland, while escaping through the jungle”.19

20The reenacted scenes support Hun Sen’s affective recounting. They open up a more intimate dimension, in which the viewer is made part of the Prime Minister’s emotional state, when the latter recalls being beset by doubts and fears (but still driven by his mission). For example, he sits alone at night and looks at the sky, wondering whether the Vietnamese will trust him, kill him, or hand him over to the Khmer Rouge. These moments of anxiety and hesitation feature in the bas-reliefs at the Win-Win Monument too, in the form of “bubbles” that come out of Hun Sen’s head and describe these different options (fig. 3). In many ways, the movie is the mobile version of the Win-Win Monument, an easily distributed monumentalisation of Hun Sen’s vision. In this case, iteration is conceived of as a form of political pedagogy. Expressed through different materialities, it creates a closed loop (visually and narratively) that makes it difficult for Cambodians to escape the official interpretation of the past.

  • 20 Voun Dara, “PM Marks 44th Anniversary of “Resistance Journey”, The Phnom Penh Post (20 June 2021), (...)

21In 2021, a new narrative layer was added to this story with the reframing of Hun Sen’s defection as “resistance journey”. Posting on his Facebook account for the 44th anniversary of his march to Vietnam, the Prime Minister asked what would have happened to Cambodia if he had not led the resistance? He referred again to the “hundreds of thousands of tears” he had shed when leaving the country. Yet, he wrote, he had no choice and “these tears have brought about happiness and prosperity until today”. To mark the event, the Cambodian and Vietnamese Defence Ministers presided over a groundbreaking ceremony for a Cambodian-Vietnamese Friendship building commemorating the beginning of Hun Sen’s journey in Tonloung village in the Memot district, eastern Cambodia.20

  • 21 “Cambodia to Erect a Series of Win-Win Monuments in the Country”, Cambodianess (5 May 2020), https (...)

22Is this the start of a Via Dolorosa that will see, each year, a new station being erected? Indeed, in May 2020, the government announced the creation of a country-wide construction programme of Win-Win memorials replicating on a smaller scale the original monument.21 The not-so-subtle symbol of Defense Minister Tea Banh planting 77 trees (for 1977) points to a further aspect of this PR operation. The environmentally-friendly gesture, at odds with the government’s laissez-faire attitude, (to say the least) when it comes to illegal logging and deforestation, points to the addition of a new element to Hun Sen’s already larger-than-life political persona: the ecologically enlightened leader in line with the sustainability discourse that has gained currency in official Cambodian circles.

Monumental Reenactment and Reenacting Monumentality

  • 22 Mech Dara, “Win Win Monument, an ‘heirloom’ for generations”, Phnom Penh Post (31 December 2019), (...)

23The Win-Win Monument will teach the younger generations Cambodia’s “true history”, the head of the construction committee New Sowath declared.22 Yet, “true history” as it is represented in the bas-reliefs tends to look like a mythical version of the past.

  • 23 Erin Handley and Niem Chheng, “Analysis: in new propaganda documentary, Hun Sen attempts to ‘rewri (...)

24The film Marching Towards National Salvation offers an entry point into the workings of the monument. Observers commented that the movie was an “episode of historical mythmaking whose purpose [was] less to provide an objective narrative of history than to burnish Hun Sen’s personal story and justify the CPP’s continued rule of Cambodia”.23 As discussed in the previous section, the film tried to create among viewers an emotional bond with the Prime Minister. Moreover, it pushed defection into an entirely new realm.

25For Hun Sen, leaving Cambodia had not been only a difficult decision to make and to stick to, it had also been an otherworldly one. In the interview, the Prime Minister described his experience as a “miraculous story”. He was asleep and “heard screams on the top of a big banyan tree, saying that I had to leave immediately. Then the fire was burning around me, like a burning rocket. Later, I recalled that dream as an omen”.

26The idea that spirits played a role in the transformation of a young military officer into a selfless leader, perhaps even chose him as Cambodia’s saviour, cannot but resonate strongly in a Buddhist country. This “miraculous story” is used to reshape people’s perception of Hun Sen’s position. Power is not something he grabbed thanks to a combination of talent and manoeuvres and keeps holding through autocratic practices, but something that was bestowed on him. In this respect, the Win-Win Monument should not be understood only as the reenactment, in a monumental form, of Hun Sen’s struggles and triumphs. It gives even more weight to this mythical dimension of Hun Sen’s life by reenacting in itself a type of monumentality that has long been at the core of history-telling in Cambodia.

  • 24 An understatement for the ruthless urban planning carried out (with Chinese investments) in the ar (...)
  • 25 Khuon Narim, “Win Win Monument, a symbol of peace”, Khmer Times (31 December 2018), https://www.kh (...)

27The construction of the Win-Win Monument began in February 2016 on an eight-hectare section of land in the Chroy Changvar district on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, an industrial and commercial neighbourhood in development.24 The construction required 29,000 square meters of marble, 15,000 square meters of concrete, and 3,000 tons of steel. The structure is situated across from the Morodok Techo Stadium which will host the 2023 Southeast Asian Games. The Win-Win Monument is thus part of an urban complex aimed at showcasing Cambodia as an ultra-modern country that plays an important regional role.25

  • 26 The two structures are linked. The S.21 staff used Choeung Ek – an orchard and a former Chinese ce (...)

28This prestige project (USD12 million) is best understood within the broader context of monumentality and memorialisation of Cambodia’s recent past. There is a limited number of memorials and monuments. The better known are the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, established in 1979 in the facilities of the Khmer Rouge S.21 prison in Phnom Penh, and the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre (“Killing Fields”) located fifteen kilometres south of the capital city.26 Local memorials, often hosted in pagodas, have been erected since the 1980s, and more recently in the frame of the symbolic reparations assigned by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).

29Transitional justice in Cambodia has given rise to a new generation of projects that usually involve an educational aspect. The Anlong Veng Peace Centre, which promotes reconciliation through pedagogy and community projects, is a good example. It is the result of the collaboration between the ECCC and the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam). The latter was founded in the mid-1990s as a field office for Yale University’s Cambodian Genocide Project. Today, it is a prominent archive and research institution that works closely with the ECCC. The DC-Cam itself, initially hosted in small offices in Phnom Penh, has sought to expand into a gigantic complex combining archives, museum, and research centre to be located outside the city – the Sleuk Rith Institute (SRI). In the past years, the project, supposed to be built by the famous Zaha Hadid Architects bureau, has been put on hold for financial reasons. The promotional images of the SRI show a syncretic structure inspired by both Khmer architectural and iconographic traditions and international memorial institutions such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC.27

  • 28 When Sihanouk (1922-2012) abdicated in 2004 for health reasons, his son Norodom Sihamoni became ki (...)

30This type of syncretism is not new in Cambodia. It was the signature mark of the Sangkum or post-independence era (1955-1970), as Norodom Sihanouk (then head of state) engaged in a vast modernisation programme for the country with the help of the regime’s architect Vann Molyvann. Vann Molyvann had studied with Le Corbusier in the 1940s and worked in France until the mid-1950s. He introduced the idea of New Khmer Architecture, a combination of international modernity and Khmer tradition. The Win-Win Monument, thus, can be seen as a response to Sihanouk, in the past and the present, defining a new pole in Cambodian politics. Materially, it replicates the country’s dual power structure, with the (weak) monarchy on one side, and the (strong) premiership on the other.28

  • 29 Towards Singapore for example.

31If Phnom Penh has its Independence Monument, a landmark that has organised the circulation within the city, the Win-Win Monument aims to create a new architectural and political axis. In this sense, the choice of a “thriving” district outside Phnom Penh, in which to locate the memorial complex, is not simply a practical matter. The Win-Win Monument is a “manifesto” that symbolises the emergence of the “new” Cambodia envisioned by Hun Sen. It reaffirms a national agency that is no longer defined by past deeds (the struggle for independence) but by the determination to look forward and regionally.29 The commissioning of local architects and artists rather than a prestigious international team adds further emphasis to the vernacularisation of Cambodian historical narratives, possibly in response to the vision of the ECCC. This in turn, might well indicate the Prime Minister’s emancipation from the notions of “good governance” and “democratisation” that came with international justice.

  • 30 Unfortunately, the Museum was closed when I visited the Win-Win Monument in February 2020.
  • 31 As I could see, the replicas are used as a backdrop for the wedding pictures of newly married coup (...)

32The materiality of the Win-Win Monument is thus highly political. The structure is heavy on symbolism. The triangular monolith stands for the three guarantees the Khmer Rouge defectors received from Hun Sen (safety, job, and property). The pentagonal basis represents the five aspects of the DIFID policy. External references (to Asian social realism, for example) come to mind when observing the Win-Win Monument. Yet, there are references to Angkor Wat that dominate the memorial complex: it is made from the same stone used to construct the temples. In order to underline the connection even further, the four entrances that give access to the bunker-level where the Win-Win Museum is located are guarded by lions and nagas – half-cobra and half-human semi-divine beings.30 The first bas-reliefs of the wall represent apsara (royal dancers) and Buddha. In the same way that Khmer merchants were glorified in Angkor Wat frescoes, the back section of the Win-Win Monument displays a series of carvings that celebrate various ministries, depicted through a combination of nagas and symbols. On one side of the plaza stand miniature replicas of temples such as the Bayon and Banteay Srey.31 Like Angkor Wat, the Win-Win Monument creates “ambulatories” of history. Presented as a galleria progressiva, Hun Sen’s life unfolds as a “sacred text” whose reading people are asked to perform; the carvings are not just a nice background for selfie opportunities, they attract the touch of the visitors who walk around the pentagonal structure. People stand in front of the bas-reliefs and panels; they stroke them and talk about them (fig. 4). What the Win-Win Monument proposes to Cambodians is a sensory, embodied version of “civic” education that appears less as a critical pedagogy than a ritualisation of history-telling in familiar forms.

  • 32 Southeast historian Penny Edwards explains that this narrative was articulated in part by the Fren (...)

33Although the Win-Win Monument is part of an architectural vision meant to reflect a future-oriented Cambodia, it does not constitute a rupture with old monumental forms. The Angkor Wat influences permeating it have a double function. They anchor Hun Sen’s re-drawing of the political power map and vision of the “new” country into national “history” and continuity. Moreover, they situate the events of the past forty years (defections, civil wars, regime changes) within a narrative sequence of glory, hardship, suffering, and rebirth that has long been the pattern of modern Cambodian historiography (Edwards 2006).32

Fig. 4. Family looking at a bas-relief

Fig. 4. Family looking at a bas-relief

©Stéphanie Benzaquen-Gautier (2020)

34The Win-Win Monument offers a tangible “image-book” filled with archetypical and realistic depictions. Hun Sen, for example, is often represented as bigger than his counterparts. At the same time, the rendering of weapons, helicopters, and tanks is realistic. It is tempting to look at this syncretic mix of political propaganda and mythological storytelling through the lens of the posthuman, not with a view to arguing in any way that Hun Sen is not “human” but in order to stress the specific Khmer framing of political power through the divine. The last revered “God-King” was Sihanouk, and with him disappeared this extraordinary ability to embody both the secular, interventionist leader and the sacred, untouchable, anointed King. Hun Sen is careful not to tread this path. Yet, he designs his own path, imposing the “premiership” as a site of power as important as kingship (if not more so). The Win-Win Monument is part of this strategy, and in this context, the idea of the lingam is certainly the best possible description of the Prime Minister’s attempt to create a new political dynasty through monumentality.

Conclusion

35The chapter shows that a focus on materiality might help rethink the role reenactment plays in historical transmission in Cambodia. By choosing the Win-Win Monument, a recent and to date under-explored artefact, it sought to clarify how politics is made to “matter” in a changing context, as the country enters a new phase of development, with less support from the West and more involvement from China. The chapter looked at the memorial complex as a material-discursive apparatus, supplemented by a second one, a documentary movie about Hun Sen’s life centring on the key moment of his defection from the Khmer Rouge. In both cases, it was shown that iteration played a major relational role in producing storytelling for past and present times.

36There is a section of the Win-Win Monument that contains almost no bas-reliefs. One finds only empty spots that have not been sculpted at all, spots from which carvings have been removed, and spots where parts have been erased or covered with white paint. Are these spots to be corrected, replaced, or filled? Was this void programmed from the start as blank pages where Hun Sen’s life and exploits are still to be written? Possibly. Yet, it points, inadvertently so, to something different – the black spots of the story recounted by the wall, the undesirable or the repressed aspects of the myth the Prime Minister wants to see engraved for posterity. It is there that the materiality of the Win-Win Monument escapes the control of its creators, unachieved and yet more complete in its holes, erasures, and crossing-outs than the sketchy story Hun Sen would like Cambodians to learn.

Notes

1 May Titthara, “Officials reminisce over Hun Sen’s win-win policy”, Khmer Times, no. 28 (December 2018 ), https://www.khmertimeskh.com/563912/officials-reminisce-over-hun-sens-win-win-policy/ [accessed 21 April 2022].

2 Karen Barad, “Posthumanist Performativity: Towards an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter”, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 28, no. 3 (2003): 822.

3 Ibid., 822-829.

4 Justus M. van der Kroef, “Cambodia: From ‘Democratic Kampuchea’ to ‘People’s Republic’”, Asian Survey, 19, no. 8 (1979), 731-750.

5 Norodom Sihanouk formed the FUNCINPEC (French acronym for National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia) in 1981. A major player in Cambodian politics, Sihanouk was put on the throne by the French colonial power in 1941. He was Cambodia’s first head of state in the post-independence era (Sangkum, 1955-1970). Ousted by a coup in March 1970, he allied with the Khmer Rouge guerrilla on China and Vietnam’s advice, and together they formed the FUNK (French acronym for National United Front of Kampuchea). After the Khmer Rouge took over in April 1975, Sihanouk remained a symbolic presence, under house arrest in Phnom Penh. From 1979 onwards, his relations with the Khmer Rouge movement oscillated between denunciation and (reluctant) alliance, such as the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK) formed in 1982 under the United States and China’s pressure. Son Sann formed the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (KPNLF) in 1978 and he too joined the CGDK in 1982.

6 It was a “win-win” because it was “winning without bloodshed and with no losers”. Nem Sowath, Civil War Termination and the Source of Total Peace in Cambodia: Win-Win Policy of Samdech Techo Hun Sen in International Context (Cambodia: Reahoo, 2012):127.

7 These are the three points: ensure survival, protect assets, and maintain position.

8 The first important defection was Ieng Sary’s (former Minister of Foreign Affairs in Democratic Kampuchea), with some 3,000 soldiers in August 1996.

9 The communal elections in June 2017 had given the CNRP control over a third of all communes. The CPP’s response was swift. In September 2017, the CNRP president Kem Sokha was put under arrest. Two months later, the Supreme Court dissolved the party on the (alleged) charge of fomenting a US-backed revolution (another recurrent narrative in Cambodia). Kem Sokha was released from house arrest in November 2019. His trial for “treason” started in January 2020 but was suspended for several months officially because of the Covid-19 situation. It restarted a few months ago, but Hun Sen hinted that it could last until 2024.

10 “Cambodia’s Hegemonic Party System: How and Why the CPP Became Dominant?”, Asian Journal of Comparative Politics, 4, no. 1 (2019): 54-57.

11 That was indeed the message of Hun Sen to CNRP members: “If you want to save your jobs … change your allegiance to the CPP”. In Andrew Nachemson, “As PM recycles policy, who wins?”, The Phnom Penh Post (9 November 2017), https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national-post-depth-politics/pm-recycles-policy-who-wins [accessed 21 April 2022]. The Prime Minister even called it a “second win-win policy”. In Sun Narin, “Local officials grapple with ‘win-win’ redux as Hun Sen tells them ‘Defect or lose jobs’ ”, VOA (3 November 2017), https://www.voacambodia.com/a/local-officials-grapple-with-win-win-redux-as-hun-sen-tells-them-defect-or-lose-jobs/4098613.html [accessed 21 April 2022].

12 Nachemson, “As PM recycles policy”.

13 George Wright, “Hun Sen ‘win win’ legacy debated on Khmer Rouge fall anniversary”, AlJazeera (28 December 2018), https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/12/28/hun-sen-win-win-legacy-debated-on-khmer-rouge-fall-anniversary [accessed 21 April 2022].

14 Niem Chheng, “Win Win Monument: PM’s ‘treason’ or symbol of unity?”, The Phnom Penh Post, 3 (January 2019), https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national-politics/win-win-monument-pms-treason-or-symbol-unity [accessed 21 April 2022].

15 There are two versions of the movie, one in Khmer and one in English. See Khuon Narim “State produced film tells story of ‘salvation march’”, Khmer Times (3 January 2018), https://www.khmertimeskh.com/99613/state-produced-film-tells-story-salvation-march/ [accessed 21 April 2022].

16 With his companions Nuch Thorng, Nhek Huon, Sou Kimsreang, and Va Por Ean.

17 The movie aired on Vietnamese National Defence Channel, Ho Chi Minh City’s television HTV, and Vietnam’s television VTV4 and VTV1. Vietnamese academic Vu Duong Ninh declared that it was “significantly objective” and had “true historical value”. In “Marching Towards National Salvation: A Valuable and Factual Documentary,” People’s Army Newspaper (10 January 2018), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v= oj3dAlpf7ls [accessed 21 April 2022].

18 Forum Future think tank director Ou Virak, quoted in George Wright “Cambodian Strongman Displays Iron Fist and Vulnerability”, UCA News (19 January 2018), https://www.ucanews.com/news/cambodian-strongman-displays-iron-fist-and-vulnerability/81260 [accessed 21 April 2022].

19 Wright, “Cambodia Strongman”.

20 Voun Dara, “PM Marks 44th Anniversary of “Resistance Journey”, The Phnom Penh Post (20 June 2021), https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national-politics/pm-marks-44th-anniversary-resistance-journey [accessed 21 April 2022].

21 “Cambodia to Erect a Series of Win-Win Monuments in the Country”, Cambodianess (5 May 2020), https://cambodianess.com/article/cambodia-to-erect-a-series-of-win-win-monuments-in-the-country [accessed 21 April 2022].

22 Mech Dara, “Win Win Monument, an ‘heirloom’ for generations”, Phnom Penh Post (31 December 2019), https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national-politics/win-win-monument-heirloom-generations, [accessed 21 April 2022].

23 Erin Handley and Niem Chheng, “Analysis: in new propaganda documentary, Hun Sen attempts to ‘rewrite history’”, The Phnom Penh Post (5 January 2018), https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national-politics/analysis-new-propaganda-documentary-hun-sen-attempts-rewrite-history [accessed 21 April 2022].

24 An understatement for the ruthless urban planning carried out (with Chinese investments) in the area.

25 Khuon Narim, “Win Win Monument, a symbol of peace”, Khmer Times (31 December 2018), https://www.khmertimeskh.com/564355/win-win-monument-a-symbol-of-peace-prime-minister/ [accessed 21 April 2022]; Mech Dara, “Win Win Monument cost 12.5 million to build”, The Phnom Penh Post (31 December 2018); Andrew Nachemson, “Hun Sen’s Monument to himself”, The Diplomat (31 December 2018).

26 The two structures are linked. The S.21 staff used Choeung Ek – an orchard and a former Chinese cemetery – as a killing site and a place to dispose of the bodies of the prisoners. About 9,000 corpses were exhumed in 1979-1980. The remains are kept onsite in a stupa memorial – a Buddhist structure that contains relics.

27 See: http://www.cambodiasri.org [accessed 12 July 2021].

28 When Sihanouk (1922-2012) abdicated in 2004 for health reasons, his son Norodom Sihamoni became king. So far, he has shown none of his father’s taste and skills for political maneuvers and power struggles.

29 Towards Singapore for example.

30 Unfortunately, the Museum was closed when I visited the Win-Win Monument in February 2020.

31 As I could see, the replicas are used as a backdrop for the wedding pictures of newly married couples who cannot afford to travel to the actual temples.

32 Southeast historian Penny Edwards explains that this narrative was articulated in part by the French colonial power around the “discovery” of Angkor Wat and quickly adopted by Cambodian intellectuals. See “Cambodge: The Cultivation of a Nation, 1860-1945” (2006). See Penny Edwards, “Cambodge: The Cultivation of a Nation, 1860-1945” (Honololu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2007).

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1. View of the monolith of the Win-Win Monument
Crédits ©Stéphanie Benzaquen-Gautier (2020)
URL http://books.openedition.org/aaccademia/docannexe/image/12080/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 112k
Titre Fig. 2. Sculpture “Isolation” representing a Khmer Rouge soldier before surrendering to the Cambodian government
Crédits ©Stéphanie Benzaquen-Gautier (2020)
URL http://books.openedition.org/aaccademia/docannexe/image/12080/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 178k
Titre Fig. 3. Bas-relief showing Hun Sen reflecting about the risks for himself, his compan-ions and his family if he defects to Vietnam
Crédits ©Stéphanie Benzaquen-Gautier (2020)
URL http://books.openedition.org/aaccademia/docannexe/image/12080/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 224k
Titre Fig. 4. Family looking at a bas-relief
Crédits ©Stéphanie Benzaquen-Gautier (2020)
URL http://books.openedition.org/aaccademia/docannexe/image/12080/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 195k

Auteur

Stéphanie Benzaquen-Gautier is an art historian and currently associate researcher in the School of Humanities at the University of Nottingham, UK, after working as European Research Council (ERC) research fellow in the project “Cultures of Occupation in Twentieth Century Asia” (COTCA) (2019-2021). She received her PhD at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam and has conducted research as fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien, the ICI Berlin (2018-2019), the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC (2012), the Stone Summer Theory Institute at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago (2010), and the Theory Department at Jan Van Eyck Academie (2005-2006). She is working on the monograph Beyond Skulls: Western Visual Culture and the Memory of the Cambodian Genocide and on an edited volume about the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Her essays have appeared in exhibition catalogues and journals, such as South East Asia Research, International Criminal Law Review, Cinéma & Cie, Dapim: Studies on the Holocaust, Mémoires en Jeu, Journal of Perpetrator Studies, and Media, Culture & Society.

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